December in January: Backwards to go forwards

retro sign reading "stressed is desserts spelled backwards" Just before the end of the past year, I decided to forgo my usual habit of cramming my annual planning into the most riotously busy time of the year. Hence, December in January, where I spend the first month of the chronological new year planning my own, to begin in February.

Of all the things I've learned about creating meaningful goals, ones that I'm passionate about and that will prove the most useful to me in achieving life goals, by far the most important has been the year-in-review exercise.

Reading Jinny Ditzler's excellent book on values-centered goal planning, Your Best Year Yet, finally turned me around on the benefits of looking backwards to go forward. It seems so obvious in hindsight (ha!) that to plan for the future without surveying the past is at best wasteful and at worst, downright foolhardy: how can I know where I'm going if I don't know where I am, and why would I give up any intelligence that helped get me here?

I'll tell you why, it hurts like crazy. Or does for me, anyway. I'm sure there are reasonable and balanced souls out there who could look objectively and even kindly on their successes and failures of the past 12 months, but for a competitive, perfectionist workaholic, it's a day-long (minimum) exercise in high-level masochism. All the inevitable broken promises, brought on by overambition, hubris and a plain, old faulty lens. Autistic people can't parse social situations properly; I can't see time. Cannot cannot cannot, no matter how hard I try. And remember, I'm a perfectionist Virgo, so not only is there trying, there is assisted trying, paid and free, as well as all kinds of experiments in different ways of trying. Oh, the trying! It's a trial, I tell you.

The trying, the effortful, effortful trying, was a huge factor in my settling on EASE as a watchword or modus operandi. Or rather, the realization that I work my ass off for and at pretty much everything made it an obvious choice to say "yes" to once it bubbled up to the surface.

But whence the bubbling, right? Because that's what you're here for and really, as Dan put it in his scarily incisive comment of last week, this is what I've chosen to do here for the past few years, sort of unofficially, as well as what I did with intention from the outset with the Great Year-Long Experiment in Marketing, a.k.a. The Virgo Guide: to carefully and honestly look at the process, and as best I can, to set up metrics so I can see how well things work and where I'm really spending my time.

As best as I can tell, these are the activities that laid the groundwork for making the radical (for me) shift of "December in January" (i.e., choosing to delay my 12-month planning by one month), and the three-month sabbatical from for-hire work in the new year (to be reviewed and renegotiated at the end of March):

  1. Decluttering. I've been on this path for a while now, but my big Clearing my (psychic) clutter push in the fall of 2009 really shifted things, with a huge leap when I encountered the work of Brooks Palmer. His book and workshop were a huge influence on me, and our ongoing calls have been a great assist, too. (More on that in a moment.)
  2. Nei Kung. I'd stumbled on James Borrelli's site a long time ago, and was intrigued by the idea of a practice even more internal than t'ai chi or qigong (which my old acupuncturist, to her credit, kept gently pushing me towards). I've been doing Nei Kung practice daily for the past five weeks and the shifts, while not always happy, have already been surprisingly significant. Whether it's the Nei Kung, all the emotional groundwork done before, committing to a daily physical practice or some combination (most likely, I'm guessing), it's a definite keeper. Big major shoutout to fellow blogger and Nei Kung enthusiast Alan Furth, who gave me the final nudge to try it. Because it ain't cheap and I usually am.
  3. Daily walks. I've been doing these since The BF first adopted Arnie, roughly two years ago. I can now recognize the sluggishness I get when I miss a day or two. I remember a similar thing happening when I first started walking during my convalescence from the Crohn's onset in 2002. Again, part of it is the physical, part is probably just the regularity of it.
  4. Monthly shrinkage. Ongoing since 2001. I went weekly for a few years (oh, the good insurance days!), took a break for a bit, and came back for monthly tuneup/checkins. Again, not cheap, but the value of having a sane person to check in with when the compass you shipped with is a wonky one can't be calculated.
  5. Success Team, EstroFest, Google Wave with Dave and assorted other collaborative ventures. If you don't have ongoing accountability and support, get it. No one does this alone, no one. It's good to have friends, too, with their kind, Kleenex-upholstered shoulders (and even as touchstones), but committed, ongoing peer support makes it happen.
  6. Money. I've made less and less money each year since I quit acting. (I know, hilarious, right?) Which makes me even happier that I had a fat nest egg to start with. I had a goodly windfall of the bittersweet kind (father dying), but I also had a considerable amount put aside of my own. I have been a squirreler-of-funds since I had nickel #2 to rub together with nickel #1, and have invested in all kinds of crazy people-fueled ventures as well as an IRA and stocks just so I know there's always something growing, somewhere. (I'm not in a position to invest now, obviously, so don't bother asking.) Having this cushion gives me the freedom to follow my path. I cannot emphasize that enough!

The above are what I'd characterize as the "positives" that fueled this decision. There were also some negatives, and they're important, too:

  1. Overcommitting in 2009. My default solution to any problem is to throw more me at it. Unfortunately, there's less me to go around as I get older (even as there's more me in certain places), so I'm having to reexamine my methodology. I was extremely burned out by the beginning of December; I could not get enough rest, it felt like. Plus I had such a crowded schedule from a combination of saying "yes" to things, wanting to try things and my natural tendency towards workaholism that there was never any time to step back and reflect. Nothing like being on a hamster wheel of your own creation. I know, I know, they're ALL of our own creation. Still. Not like I had two kids and a spouse and a boss and a mortgage. A self-employed single person in a rent-controlled apartment? Please.
  2. Dissatisfaction with consulting business model. I love aspects of consulting, but the wear and tear on me is phenomenal. In addition, I know I did a bad job both of managing expectations and establishing boundaries. I had no way of knowing how much I'd suck at certain aspects of this until I tried it (nor of how much I'd enjoy others), so I'm glad I did. If/when I pick it up again, my way of doing it will be very, very different: more clearly defined, better managed and most likely, more expensive. (I'm open to any interesting ideas about this, by the way.)
  3. Unsatisfied yearnings. While I did enjoy running the Biznik meetups, doing the consulting work, co-hosting Presentation Camp, etc., I found the greatest satisfaction in writing, meeting people I really clicked with and spending time with them (most of whom I found via writing and reading) and the little bit of reading I did. I also loved doing so much speaking, but the exhilaration I felt doing the Ignite presentation vs. the business-related presentations. I'm not sure what that means yet in terms of what to do moving forward, but it bears further examination.
  4. Ill health. Fortunately, I had only one major health issue this year, back in the spring, when I pushed myself too hard and strayed too far off my diet. And even more fortunately, I was able to pull myself back without resorting to steroids, as I've usually done. Still, this scared the crap out of me, both literally and figuratively. (Ah, Crohn's! What a delight you are, my little barometer!) I really want to get off of the meds I'm on, and that can't happen until I've implemented much better self-care habits.

There were other indicators that I was drifting into the red zone: alcohol usage creep; laziness/anxiety-fueled poor eating habits; increased nail and cuticle biting; poor sleep; off-the-charts web surfing and viewing of comfort films. I know way too much about the habits of a certain fameball and the people who watch her, and if my copy of Play Misty for Me was an LP, it would be worn smooth. Thank whomever I gave up cable, at least.

Modesty prohibits me making an exhaustive list of what I'd consider to be my successes of the past year, but I did list them, and if I may be immodest for just the one minute, I produced a crapload of work last year, and made many, many breakthroughs. I'm most pleased with the quantity, and quality, of the writing I committed to; that it was the one goal I actually followed through on is rather telling. I fell one post short of my goal of 260, and did not miss a month of my acting column or newsletter, nor a week of posting at the Virgo Guide.

You'd think I'd look at all this and come up with the simple answer to just write my ass off, and to hell with the rest. Alas, the sum total of money I made from writing last year wouldn't keep me in expenses for more than a month. My savings, while ample enough for now, can't fund this experiment indefinitely, so I'll have to figure out how to make money writing, or to make money doing something else with a low mental load so I can reserve strength for writing. The ideal scenario workwise seems to be Gladwellian: a 90/10 or 95/5 ratio of writing to speaking, and always on what interests me. I don't need nearly the cash our boy Malcolm makes, but I need that ratio.

Is it realistic? Not in year one, and maybe never. At least I have a picture in my head of what the best future looks like, and a start with some role models...

xxx c

Image by rick via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.